I sat with my Lola (that’s Filipino for grandmother) several times over the weekend. We stared at one another in long, quiet moments filled with love, frustration, confusion, and joy. When I visited Sydney in the past, she called out my name in joyful recognition. This time was different. My lola has dementia and I am fleetingly a stranger to her.
I sit beside her on the sofa listening to her deep breathing. She often asks “where are we?” and more painfully, for me, “who are you?”. She communicates to me in her native tongue, Tagalog, the national dialect of the Philippines. I love coming back to Sydney to see my family but this is bittersweet. My lola is old. At 83 she has lived a long life with many chapters I haven’t read. All I know is that she raised me here in Australia and I had a richer upbringing because of it.
Last night she woke up at 1.00am. We chatted in the kitchen for a while and I fed her because she was hungry. By the second spoonful of food she asked me to confirm her surroundings again. She asked me who I was and how she came to arrive in the kitchen. I began to explain things then she needed to use the toilet. I helped her out and tucked her back into bed. I thought about how she would have done all of these things for me when I was a little girl. As hard as it was to see her in this state, all I could do was care for her in the way she cared for me.
I had been reading about neuroplasticity and how the brain retains memory prior to visiting Sydney. I also read that people who suffer memory loss can regain it if surrounded by nostalgia and if they are sung to. So while she sat beside me I sang her a song that she used to sing at the sewing machine over the years. These words seem so fitting in this circumstance:
“Que serra serra,
whatever will be, will be
the future’s not ours to see,
que serra serra”
My flight leaves this afternoon and I kiss her goodbye for now. I booked her a ticket to Adelaide later this year. I live in the hope that she has the strength to make it and to watch me perform in my next musical theatre show, Les Miserables, a few months from now. She used to come to all of my performances. She was such a supportive audience member and I drew strength from knowing she was watching me sing.
I love my lola, Pacita (or Paz, more affectionately). Even though her memory fades, my memories of her never will. A large part of the woman I am today is owed to her selfless love for me. In her honour, I will live my life completely and with gratitude. I come from a poor family that is rich in fighting spirit, love, and determination. For this, I am truly blessed.